Don’t listen to anything the Mayans told you about 2012. The new season is here, and it’s going to bring a whole lot more sunshine to our lives. I say Bah! Humbug! to all the pessimism. It’s the start of the new NBA season and no amounts of freezing cold weather, Sandy-like hurricanes, corrupt politicians, or doomsday preppers can douse my enthusiasm.
And with the return of a full 82-game-per-team schedule returns a whole new list of exciting storylines to follow in the coming months. The start of every new season is like a clean slate, and despite the fact that we NBA-holics know so much about the game we so love and worship, we still start each season clueless to the future. Every team is 0-0, every player’s averages are 0.0, everyone is a contender for the championship and every player can theoretically be MVP.
So before the league tips off tonight with the Washington Wizards visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers (really, that’s the first game), I present to you 21 questions that have been brewing most in my mind about the new NBA year, and then, in my season preview, perhaps attempt to predict some of those answers.
1. Can LeBron James transcend his game and go from being the greatest our generation to one of the greatest of all time?
2012 was the year of LeBron, as the man who was proclaimed ‘King’ years before he became one finally stepped up to the throne. LeBron won an MVP award, his first championship, the Finals MVP award, and led the USA to a gold-medal victory in the Olympics. In the process, he indisputably became the best player in the world, and one of the best players of his time. But can he get even better? Can he add to his legacy even more? Will we compare him to Durant, Howard, Paul, and Rondo, or will we think of him amongst Jordan, Magic, Russell, and Bird? The greatest players didn’t rest on the laurels of one championship, they kept coming back for more and more success. For LeBron to chase immortality, he’ll have to first chase a repeat performance of 2012. It’s easier said than done, but with the Miami Heat reloaded and LeBron himself riding a wave of confidence, 2013 could be James’ year again.
2. Can Kevin Durant fulfill his destiny as the NBA’s ‘golden boy’?
Unlike LeBron, who faced several ups and downs on his road to success, Kevin Durant’s journey – along with that of his team Thunder – has been on an upward trajectory. Durant and his team have gotten better every season, going from playoff outsiders to 8th seed to conference finalists to Western champions. Having come so close to a championship, this was supposed to be OKC’s year to take another big stride and secure a Finals victory. But with the unexpected trade of James Harden, it seems that the fairytale of growing talent in the Thunder is over. OKC will have to redefine their team chemistry again, but with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka still in the locker room, don’t expect them to fall back too much.
3. Can Kobe Bryant win his sixth championship to equal Michael Jordan?
Kobe Bryant wants to be Michael Jordan. This is evident in everything he does, from his off-court personality to the style of play he adopted from his idol. In recent years, he has also inched closer to MJ in the rings department, and needs just one more to equal Jordan’s championship successes. 2013 may be his best chance yet – with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol on his side, Kobe says that this is the best Lakers team he has ever been on. With age running against him, the time to equal MJ may be now or never.
4. Can Steve Nash finally win a ring?
Two MVP awards, a dozen winning seasons, eight All-Star appearances, and 16 years in the NBA, but one of the greatest point guards of all time is still coveting the NBA championship. Now in the loaded Lakers, will Steve Nash finally become a champion?
And in yet another Laker-related storyline, is the NBA’s best Center ready to win like the NBA’s best Center should? Dwight Howard’s reputation has taken a hit because of his recent antics off the court. But on it, he remains a force to be reckoned with. Now part of the strong Laker team, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year has the chance of becoming the leader of a championship squad. And more importantly, being the centerpiece for the future of the Lakers franchise. The hunt for current – and future success – begins now.
6. Is Rajon Rondo the third-best player in the NBA?
Don’t laugh, I’m serious, and I defend my reasoning on the 2012 playoffs alone. With the top two slots on lock with the names of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, it was Rajon Rondo who became the surprise superstar in the previous postseason, leading the old and gimpy Celtics to within one game of the NBA Finals. Rondo was nothing short of epic, collecting triple-doubles on the regular, having 40 point games, and being the only player menacing enough to be a threat to the legacy of LeBron. Although he is primarily a playoff threat, Rondo is ready to make a jump into super-elite status in the regular season as well, and he should be the undisputed leader of the Eastern Conference’s second-best team.
7. Can the Brooklyn Nets be the NBA’s most-improved team?
A new arena, awesome colours, a millionaire owner, and a whole new city. With their move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, the Nets have totally revamped the look and feel of their franchise. But how much has the team itself improved? The Nets have paired their All Star point guard Deron Williams with former All Star guard Joe Johnson. They will see a healthy return of Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez and have another serviceable big man in Kris Humpfries. This is no championship squad, but it should be a major improvement than the team that finished with a 22-44 record last season. Can Williams and Johnson lead them into the playoffs?
8. When will Derrick Rose return, and when he does, will he be a superstar again?
Rose is one of the most likeable players in the NBA and a personal favourite, and so there are more than enough reasons for fans to wait eagerly for his return from the harrowing injury last playoffs. As one of NBA’s most talented and determined players, his return is sure to be one of the most feel-good stories of the year. But he could miss more than half of the games this year (and perhaps a lot more) and even if he does return, we wonder if the explosiveness that made him MVP two seasons ago will return with him. The Bulls are good enough to have a decent finish in the East even without him, but they can’t afford to have much playoff success without him.
9. Is Kevin Love the best power forward in the NBA?
Yes. Not Blake Griffin, not Chris Bosh, not Dirk Nowitzki, not Pau Gasol, not LaMarcus Aldridge, not Zach Randolph. Kevin Love. If there were any doubt of his greatness last season, expect them to be vanquished when he follows up individual greatness with team success this year.
10. Can the Minnesota Timberwolves make the playoffs?
Love will miss a few weeks to begin the season and Rubio will miss a few more, but once the two best players for the T-Wolves return, expect them to be up and running to become the NBA’s most surprising team this season. The Timberwolves brought back two very effective players to the NBA – Andrei Kirilenko from Russia and Brandon Roy from an injury-forced retirement – both of whom who have looked decent in the pre-season. Add them to a core that includes Nikola Pekovic, Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger, JJ Barea, and Luke Ridnour, and you have a team which will win more games than it loses. A brilliant tactician like Rick Adelman leading from the top won’t hurt either.
11. Who will be the most exciting team in the NBA that won’t be on TV that much?
The Denver Nuggets. Speed, athleticism, finesse, the right amount of toughness, and the right amount of crazy. That is what you’re getting with the George Karl led Nuggets, who will probably start with the core of Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee. The Nuggets are going to win more games than you think this season.
12. Will Carmelo Anthony ever ‘get it’?
Meet Carmelo Anthony, the juggernaut. Anthony does one thing really well, perhaps better than 99.99 percent of basketball players in the world, and that one thing is scoring. He can score in more ways and with the greatest ease than anyone. This is what makes him, on any given night, the most dangerous player in the planet. Carmelo Anthony also does very little of other things. He doesn’t rebound as much as he should (despite his decent numbers), he doesn’t defend as much as he should, he doesn’t keep the offense flowing, and he doesn’t lead a team with constant identity crisis like the New York Knicks like he should. For these reasons, many fans have given up on ’Melo, expecting him to never graduate to anything more than a pure scorer, and pure scorers without the right pieces around them don’t win championships. Can Anthony raise his game to another level, and thus take the riddling Knicks deeper into the playoffs?
13. Can Andrew Bynum be the 76ers best player since Allen Iverson?
He has all the tools to do so, but as always, needs health on his side to be at his best on a consistent basis. Philadelphia has a loyal, hungry fanbase waiting for their saviour, and Bynum is a star waiting for a chance to be a leader of his own team. Well, you got that team now, Andrew. Now lead.
14. Will the Spurs make a deep playoff run again?
Don’t ever doubt the Spurs, ever. Tony Parker will be the team leader again, and the cast of Duncan, Ginobili, Leonard, Diaw, Neal, and the rest will do what a Popovich team always does – win a lot of games quietly, and then win a lot more games making some noise in the post-season. Still, age catches up with even the best of them, and the surging Thunder and improved Lakers should clearly be the top two in the West above San Antonio.
I got the answer for this question first-hand when I went to see a pre-season game featuring the Clippers versus the Heat a few weeks ago. Without the brilliant CP3 running the show, the Clippers were like a group of (ultra-athletic) headless chicken. All of Blake Griffin’s talent and hard-work could go to waste without a decent playmaker setting him up. Paul is far more than just ‘decent’; he is one of the best players in the NBA and a legendary competitor. The Clippers will live and die with Chris Paul. And Paul’s shoulders alone may not be strong enough to carry this team too far.
16. Is James Harden an All Star?
Harden will go from being the third-best player in a great team to the best player in a bad one, and in the process, his numbers will spike up dramatically. Harden was always way too talented to come off the bench, and is destined to become the third-best shooting guard in the NBA behind Kobe and Wade. While he may not win as much in Houston, he will get a chance to blossom into the All Star talent this season. With Jeremy Lin alongside him in the back court, the Rockets have suddenly become one of the more interesting stories in the NBA.
17. Who is set to make the biggest jump in talent this season?
That would be Kyrie Irving. Last year’s rookie of the year showed signs of maturity way beyond his years. Irving may not be the absolute fastest, or the highest-jumper, or the best shooter, or the best-passer, but he has a combination of all those skills and a great degree of intelligence. The young Cavaliers will continue to improve with him and Irving will enter All Star discussions this season.
18. What’s stopping DeMarcus Cousins?
Cousins can be a superstar Center in a league that is desperate for talented big men, but an unpredictable personality mixed with a culture of losing in Sacramento seems to be in the way of his own success. If he gets his mind right, Cousins can be an absolute beast in the post. But unless the big man gets a little more mature, the answer to the above question is simple: himself.
19. Will the Bobcats be the NBA’s worst again?
The race for reverse-greatness, i.e. last place begins the same day the season begins. Who’s going to be the biggest loser? The Bobcats made history last season by becoming the team with the worst winning percentage in NBA history. They may improve a little this season, but don’t expect any drastic jumps, Charlotte fans. The Bobcats will be challenged to this last place ‘honour’ by the Wizards and the Orlando Magic.
After a year of unprecedented individual success and team glories both for his college and US Olympics side, number one rookie Anthony Davis is set to face the harsh reality of life as a bottom-dweller of the Southwest conference. Yes, the Hornets have Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, too, but they are still looking ahead at a tough season. Davis is sure to finish top of the rookie of the year rankings, but he will not be enjoying much team success. Hopefully, he remains optimistic and continues to improve as his career progresses.
21. Who will be the new Jeremy Lin?
You know, that one guy that nobody has heard of until February, and then he goes on to become the NBA’s biggest name and on the cover of TIME Magazine? Just kidding – there’s absolutely 0 chance of anything like ‘Linsanity’ happening again. But there is sure to be a breakout star here or there – somewhere – around the league. A player like Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Pekovic, or Isaiah Thomas last season. This is absolutely impossible to even try to predict, but I’m going to take a complete shot in the dark and say that this player will be… Gustavo Ayon! Hey, with Howard gone, somebody has to score and rebound in Orlando, right? The Mexican Ayon, who went undrafted back in 2007, has been signed by the Magic this offseason after one year with the Hornets. Now ready to fight for a starting position in one of the NBA’s worst teams, watch for the beginning of Ayonsanity. (Note: if I’m wrong, the above four lines NEVER existed).
And if you’re still here with me, here are my predictions for the awards and the winners this season:
Most Improved Player of the Year: Greg Monroe (Pistons) – Monroe is a legit stud, and will be noticed a lot more this season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Serge Ibaka (Thunder) – he came close last year. With a fresh new contract, I predict that this is Ibaka’s trophy to lose this season.
Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau (Bulls) – why Thibs again? My answer: for keeping the Bulls good enough to secure home-court advantage in the East, without Derrick Rose for most of the year.
6th Man of the Year: Derrick Favors (Jazz) – assuming that Favors continues to come off the bench behind Millsap and Jefferson, I predict he’ll take a big step forward this season.
MVP: LeBron James (Heat) – Sorry haters, but I don’t see it happening any other way, unless voters just get bored and give it to someone else. Durant, Howard, Paul, and maybe Rondo could challenge him for the biggest individual prize, but with a championship-swagger, a new team of shooters to make him more influential, and a newly-discovered post-game, this is LeBron’s trophy again.
Playoff Predictions: The eight to make it in the East will be the Heat, Celtics, Bulls, Pacers, Knicks, 76ers, Hawks, and Nets. The West will be loaded with Thunder, Lakers, Spurs, Clippers, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Jazz, and Timberwolves. I expect Heat to play (and beat) the Celtics in the Eastern Finals again, and the West to be a classic between the Lakers and the Thunder, with the Lakers riding their incredible talent to win a long series.
Champions: Miami Heat – the Heat will repeat, defeating the Lakers in a classic Finals series. LA has all the right weapons, but will implode against Miami’s working system and familiarity.
So that’s it… Hope you enjoyed/survived all of that. Now it’s up to you: do you have questions or answers of your own. Ask and share away. The season is just hours away. So get ready to welcome it in style!